Tag Archives: birthday

Unnaturally Natural

A fine rain is falling, but its presence brings only smirks. In most places a steady rain would spell the end to any bonfire. But not here. If you’re going to wait for a nice day to play outside you could be waiting a long time. Besides, it’s not every day that Kim Heacox turns 66 and you’re asked to play percussion for a medley of Beatles tunes with the names changed to some variation of “Kim,” “Kimmy,” or “dude.”

After a final rousing chorus of “Hey Dude” we pile our plates with the ridiculous bounty Hank Lentfer and Anya Maier have pulled out of their garden and the woods of Lemesurier Island. Of the six dishes on the table (including deer and two types of potatoes), only the Macaroni and Cheese did not originate within ten miles of the plates. Guilt free food at its finest.

Hank has a fire going and we crowd around, impervious to the precipitation that is still trying to crash the party. Someone has fashioned Kim a crown from construction paper, and after his second beer he begins to issue edicts:

Edict #1: “Pee off your porch at least once a day.”

Edict #9: “Pee off your porch at least twice a day.”

Edict #21: “There shall be an edict #22.”

The most adorable monarchy of all time.

It’s not the first time that I’ve gathered around a fire with these people and marveled at how on earth I became their friends, and now their neighbor. Both the Heacox’s and Lentfer/Maier’s are within a well thrown baseball of our property while wunderkind Zach Brown and his ambitious Inian Island Institute are just down the aquatic street.

As we talk and the beer flows, the cloud adorned ceiling drops lower and lower until the fog is perched on the tops of the Spruce trees like a hat. The guitars come out. As sure as there will be rain, there will be guitars at a Gustavus gathering. Van Morrison, Buddy Tabor, and more Beatles rise up to meet the clouds. In a world that seems to have spun out of control the handful of us around the fire seem temporarily insulated. The fog wraps around us like a blanket, shrouding us from the insanity that has become American politics. Fear melts away, anxiety vanishing with every verse.

In my slightly inebriated state I look around the bonfire, convinced that I have discovered the meaning of life.

As humanity turns to a more urbanized existence, I wonder if we’re robbing ourselves of one of our birthrights. Like processed sugar, man has not subsisted off a diet of high density living for that long. Certainly not long enough to evolve a tolerance for it. It would be nearly impossible to emulate this sort of gathering in Seattle, let alone New York, Boston, or countless other meccas. But after living as either nomads or in small, tightly woven communities for so long, it’s hard to imagine that an essential part of what makes us human is lost when we are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of others. Yes, people have parties in the city all the time. But in the stoic and lifeless walls of a building where eyes drift to iPhones every couple of minutes, does this feed the tribe desire seeded deep within? Almost every person who visits Gustavus falls in love (though most insist they could never live here). And yet few can put their finger on what it is that attracts them. Perhaps the cocktail of tribal bonding and wilderness setting flips the switch within that we have been steadily burying since a certain industrial revolution.

Hank plops down next to me. I’m only partially joking when I say he’s the blueprint for what I want to be when I’m 40. I used to envy people’s cars, now I envy Hank’s garden and root cellar which are an aspiring gardener’s fantasy. His garden is no more than 600 square feet, but from it he, Anya, and their daughter Linnea grow enough potatoes, carrots, and beets to get them through the winter. It’s late June and they’re still chipping away at last year’s potato harvest. Their freezer is stocked with deer from Lemesurier (affectionately referred to as “Lem”) and halibut. I gobble down deer roast and answer questions around my fork.

“You got the shitter set up yet?” Hank has the gift of brevity in addition to gifting us their old outhouse which has the dimensions and weight of a medieval battering ram.

“Not yet, I still need to get it into the woods somehow. But it’s upright and we got a tarp on it to keep the rain off. I still feel like you christen it for us.”

He laughs and Zack plops down next to us, clinking the Obsidian Stout in his hand against the one in mine.

“We just had the septic in our place go out.” He says, eyes in the fire. “We thought that the pipe was just frozen for the winter but…” he takes a long pull on his beer, “turns out that it’s… seeping into the yard.” He sighs and smiles. Nothing keeps a smile off Zack’s face for long. “It’s incredible. The work and effort that we go through for the luxury of pooping indoors.”

I look over Hank’s shoulder to where Anya sits listening and we share a smile.

“Every time we hang out we talk about where we shit.”

Me and Brittney’s first decision when we bought our land was that we would rock a composting toilet forever, save 15 grand digging a leach field and installing a tank, and score free manure in the process. If it’s good enough for the Lentfer/Maier’s it’s plenty good for us.

Zack’s still mulling the incredulity of it all. There’s a bit of Socratic flair in him, questioning everything. “It’s so unnatural, and then it goes into a tank and gets shipped to where? Seattle?”

Hank nods and Zack shakes his head, “so unnatural,” he repeats.

I look around the fire to where Patrick Hanson is strumming out “Into the Mystic” while Jen Gardner and Linnea sing along, Kim is on edict number 30, a couple of people from out of town stare as if they’ve just landed on the dark side of the moon, and the fog insulates us from it all. Perhaps we seem unnatural to the world. Perhaps our willingness to do our business outside, eat the food we grow, and play hopscotch with the poverty line is crazy. But darn it all if it doesn’t beat two hour commutes and cookie cutter homes on a tenth of an acre. I like being the crazy one, the unnatural one. Because in doing so I think I’ve found that in reality it’s the most natural instinct we have.

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The Birthday Post

For the first time in a year, I got carded. Granted, some of that may have something to do with spending the last six months buying drinks from the same two people (not a lot of choices when there’s only two “bars” in town). But on the eve of my 28th birthday, it served as some sort of inverse reminder. Youth is fleeting. Now I know, my elders and betters will roll their eyes at such a proclamation.

“28? You have your whole life ahead of you.”

To which I say, of course. But we must all admit, that in a society obsessed with youth, with staying young, where waging war against wrinkles is a billion dollar industry, it’s hard not to look at your birthday as some sort of landmark. A road sign twisted and rusted on the highway of life, reminding us that this precious gift slides by far too fast.

I’ve spent the last few days in Seattle. A fine city as far as cities go. It’s big on brew pubs, grunge music, and Macklemore. Though it could do with some deer, perhaps a pack of wolves prowling along I-5. It’s my little snapshot of how normal people live. You know, the ones with satellite TV, high speed internet, and cars that don’t resemble the rusted hull of the Titantic.

I stood in a mall with glistening floors and walls. Music blared through speakers, a movie preview played on a loop from a cluster of wide screens, dozens of adds battled for my attention. But as I dutifully manned my post by the Old Navy entrance, I watched my fellow mall patrons and decided on a little sociological experiment. How many, I wondered, would be on their phones?

The answer was almost all of them. Eyeballs sucked to the screen as if Apple had designed a gravity app more powerful then the moon. What, I wondered could they all be looking at? I didn’t have the phone Brittney and I share. And I must admit there was a decent chance that if it had been in my pocket instead of her purse I may have pulled it out. And what would I have done? Jumped on the internet I guess. Refreshed espn.com even though I knew that there was nothing there I needed to see. People sat side by side on benches, heads bowed as if in prayer, not saying a word. Couples walked hand in hand, free hands holding the creations of Samsung. What are we doing on these things?

Which leads me back to my birthday road sign. If life is so precious, so fleeting and quick, why don’t we spend more time in the present? Why are we so quick to escape to an alternate reality? Later we pass by a Windows PC store. Near the door stood a man. He’s facing the big pane windows but he can’t see him. Something looking like a futuristic toaster is secured to his face. The heck?

“Alternate reality,” Uncle Chris explains to me.

No way.

Maybe it’s just the next wave of video games. Essentially that’s all it is. A really realistic game. And if they made a sports one? Heck yes I’d try that out. Again I must admit to my love of a certain baseball computer game. It’s my escape when I can’t read about Trump, climate change, or acidifying oceans anymore. My own, if you will, alternate reality where the Minnesota Twins finish above .500. So really I’m no different. And maybe that is the wakeup call.

And perhaps that’s what I’ve learned in the last year. That despite my little migratory life from the seat of my kayak, I’m not all that different from the mall patrons and commuters of the city. And that’s ok, that’s a good thing. If I’m no different then those I want to reach, then getting them to listen, to put down their phone and read what comes out of my head should be easy. Maybe one of them will load raincoastwanderings from their phone! The irony.

Because I want the mall dwellers to read what I write. I want to inspire and touch people’s lives. The mall is not a bad place just as a phone that can tell you what time the Vikings play isn’t. What I want, what I aspire to, is to remind people that there’s a big blue and green world beyond the sliding doors. A world you can enter without strapping a toaster to your head. And that, most importantly, we cannot live without it. That the natural world, like every day we are gifted, is precious.

A Year of Transition

Dear God, I’m 27. I’m not sure what I thought I’d be when I looked through the crystal ball a decade or even five years ago, but this wasn’t it. I thought I’d have a steady job, a respectable career, and would be staring unblinkingly into the headlights of fatherhood. The reality couldn’t be more different. I’m a seasonal job hopping, wanna be John Muir apostle and nature writer who still spends far too much time playing this game. But for the first time since I walked off the UAS campus and had my respectable career tossed back in my face, I have direction. Or as close as my life comes to direction nowadays.

Last summer I went golfing with Brittney’s uncle in Washington. While we waited for the ferry home, I laid in the back of the car and my heart started pounding.
“I’m gonna be 26 this year,” I thought. “I’m closer to 30 than 20.” I had my first mini panic attack. “What am I doing with myself?”
My crisis followed me up the B.C coast, to Hanson Island, and hovered in the back of my mind like a dark fog. What are you going to do? I’d scoffed at the question when people asked me that. Loved the stunned look on their face when I’d airily toss back, “whatever I want to.”
But seriously, what was I going to do next? I was all too aware that our bank account was drying, that the coming spring would bring some serious questions and answers that would magnify like ripples on a lake.

The warm July sun worked its way across Orca Lab’s observation deck warming the weathered cedar planks. I sat cross legged on the deck, arms on top of the lowest railing, chin on my wrists, staring blankly out at the water. I was supposed to be counting humpbacks, noting sea lions, looking for the tell tale scimitar shape of a prowling orca. But the landscape swam before my eyes and I pondered the same persistent worry.
The breeze fluttered, I thought about how much I loved it here. Loved being on the water, near the whales, the cedar forest, and the people. That was what made Orca Lab what it was. Paul, Helena, the never ending parade of volunteers from every corner of the world that gave Hanson Island its unique flavor. Where else had people touched my spirit like that? What place had the potential and power to do it again and again?
Gustavus.
I sat upright, my head banging against the middle railing, a dull thunk rattling down the cedar. I let the bruise go unnoticed as I begin to pace from one end of the deck to the next. The breeze whispers in my ears, “Gustavus. You’re going to go back, you’re going to be a kayak guide, and you’re going to write.”
Moments later the stress and fear that had taken up residence in my lower stomach melted away, draining through my pores to be caught on the westerly breeze, never to be seen again. Was it God? The universe? My own fevered mind racing through the card catalog of the brain for something that would satisfy?
I grabbed my phone and with shaking hands, tapped out a message to Brittney. “We should go back to Gustavus.”
Minutes later I had my answer, “yep.”

People pay me to write now. Not a lot, in fact I make peanuts or less than peanuts most of the time. But my computer and note pad are never far away and I scribble down ideas for novels, blog entries, and ridiculous limericks I don’t let out into the daylight. This summer, with a ball of anxiety, I sent the first 3,000 words of my wanna be memoir to Kim Heacox.
“There’s work that needs to be done here.” He wrote back, “but there’s some good stuff too. Don’t get discouraged, everyone needs to rewrite…. except F. Scott Fitzgerald. There’s a lot of writers out there who don’t have the fire, keep writing.”
“I want to have the fire,” I answered.
I share my life with a beautiful women, two fantastic (fur) babies, and split my life between two places that pull at my heartstrings, demanding my eternal affection. Just fourteen months ago I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. Now, I’m worried that I won’t have time to do it all.